The deadly sins of Israeli urban planning

The seafront at Rishon LeZion  - parking lots all the way  credit: Shutterstock

Replication, contempt, neglect: Israel’s leading urban planners cite failures and offer solutions.

Just before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Globes approached planners and architects, old and young, from the private and public sectors, to ask about the things they consider to be mistakes in Israel’s urban planning. For the most part, players in this sector refrain from criticism, but the variety of responses we received was surprising. What all our interviewees had in common, it turns out, are reservations about uniform, automated solutions, and the desire for a connection to context and reality.

"They stuff people into glass buildings under the blazing sun" -- Architect Moshe Safdie, Safdie Architects

"As a modern country, we’ve joined the high-rise construction phenomenon. In Tel Aviv and Haifa, where I grew up, or in other cities in the coastal plain, there developed an original architecture that didn’t copy what the French or English did. A very original combination of European and Middle Eastern ideas. We’ve now reached the second stage, of densely packed high-rises, and what’s happening is that we’re imitating the worst of what’s being produced abroad.

"These glass buildings, which look like the ones in Dubai, have nothing to do with our climate, our culture, or the way people live. Stuffing people into glass buildings under the blazing hot sun, is farcical."

"Formulas that repeat, over and over" -- Architect Naama Melis, owner of Melis Architects

"One of the biggest shortcomings in Israel is generic construction, construction not connected to place. Since the 1950s, Israel has built using recurring formulas, out of the need for fast mass construction to settle cities. Looking at Rishon Lezion, Dimona, Sderot or Tiberias, we can identify similar neighborhoods. True, every decade or two, we see some development, but it's repeated throughout the different cities.

"One important thing that’s been missed over the years is the street. The concept of a street was ignored, and planning was done mathematically, building after building, without any real thought about public space. There’s no dialogue between building and street, and therefore no supportive relationship is formed. If you take a street in Europe, you can see that the buildings play a part - the street is treated as a theater stage and the buildings are its backdrop. The building has a role, making the street pleasant to walk on, green spaces are created between the buildings, open spaces, open private areas, public areas. Attention is paid to the background passers-by will see."

"A pathological frenzy of demolition and destruction" -- Dr. Zvi Elhayani, Architect and Historian, Founder of the Israel Architecture Archive

"The Israeli space is currently pressured by an unprecedented steamroller of construction and development, but is also in a pathological frenzy of demolition and destruction. Historical-architectural research has frequently revealed a systematic demolition of the early and late architectural heritage by market forces and planning mechanisms.

"Many of the buildings and environments are destroyed after a short time, and those that have survived, for the time being, suffer from neglect and deterioration. Architectural works that only a few decades ago were considered the spearhead of local and international architectural practice, that could have been used as cultural assets to raise standards locally and nationally, are scattered about our cities and towns, in miserable disrepair, their original qualities often hidden under piles of makeshift additions, or vulgar renovations that force extreme changes upon their appearance.

"At the same time, a project recently moved forward to digitize historical planning and construction documents of the Israeli space. Several architectural archives have been established, there are more books than ever about the history of Israeli architecture, and municipal preservation departments are collecting hundreds of documentation files - although many serve only as a fig leaf. In the architectural culture of a perishable space - whose construction history is constantly updated by acts of destruction - this documentation reverberates like a requiem."

"The roof agreements and plans for the periphery are not urban renewal" -- Architect Ram Marash, chairmperson, The Association of Architects and Town Planners of Israel

"The biggest challenge of urban planning is urban renewal in Israel’s periphery, a challenge that has become all the more pressing because of the National Committee for Preferred Areas for Housing's (VATMAL) comprehensive agreements and plans. Faced with no choice, the cities of the south, such as Beersheva, Ofakim and Netivot, are forced to establish more neighborhoods on vacant land, outside the city center.

"It will become even worse because of the combined urban renewal and VATMAL plans that are predicated on vacate and rebuild projects. Urban renewal is not vacate and rebuild - it is an evolutionary process, a puzzle you work on with the community. It doesn’t mean destroying entire neighborhoods, which will either fail or lead to gentrification."

"Grade separation damages the urban space dramatically" -- Beni Kuritz, Urban Planner, Zmora Local Planning and Building Commission, Merhav - Movement for Israeli Urbanism

"In Israel, six light rail projects are being carried out in the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv metropolitan areas. Some of the projects are grade separations, designed to separate automobile traffic from public transport. At first glance, this sounds like a positive thing, but the ‘have it all’ approach increases project costs and - worse yet - damages the public transport passenger experience as every trip begins with a walk on foot to the bus stop or station.

"For example, as part of the work on Har Zion Boulevard in Tel Aviv, a 300-meter-long concrete wall is planned for the middle of the boulevard, allowing the train to go underground but cutting the Neve Sha'anan neighborhood in two. In another case, the road becomes an underpass, like the Pat junction in Jerusalem, which harms the area’s integrity."

"Coastal cities where residents can’t reach the beach" -- Maor Turgeman, Urban Planner, Nahariya Municipality, Merhav - Movement for Israeli Urbanism

"In preserving our coasts, we’ve cut ourselves off from the fun of going to the beach. The Carmel Beach Towers, Sea & Sun in Tel Aviv, and Arsuf Panoramic Cliffs near Kibbutz Ga’ash, are examples of real estate development projects that have given a bad name to beachfront construction. They were designed before the enactment of the Protection of the Coastal Environment Law (2004), and were compelling reasons for its enactment. Today, Israel is at the other extreme. Out of concern to protect the seafront, our coastal cities have been cut off from it. Instead of building neighborhoods that would facilitate easy access to the sea and allow many to live by the waterfront, these areas with potential are allocated to parking lots, highways, and purposeless lawns. That’s how we find ourselves with coastal cities whose residents cannot reach the beach on foot.

"Next time you're in Barcelona, Istanbul, Athens, or Nice, go to the sea. Pay attention to the streets leading to the beach, the 12-story buildings at a distance of 100 meters with fewer on the municipal seafront. In Israel, we don’t see new plans that would enable city residents to walk down a street, alive with shops, restaurants, and cafes, ending with an open view of the sea - and all that’s left is for you to take off your shoes, and walk on the sand. This is a planning injustice and a huge waste of natural resources."

"The Bedouin are invisible" -- Architect Dafna Saporta, Bimkom - Planners for Planning Rights

"The northern section of the Beersheva to Eilat railway is now being advanced. This is an upgrade of an existing railway route from Beersheva to Dimona. We're in favor of public transportation, but it should be understood that this line runs along Road 25, which is the heart of the Sayag region [the area where Bedouin residents of the Negev were gathered after the establishment of the State of Israel], where about 80,000 Bedouin now live, in towns, in recognized villages, and in unrecognized villages.

"These residents could use the railway line so that they would have access to employment, education, health services, etc. But because the Bedouin communities are ignored, the state has designed a railway line without any stations. There is zero accessibility for this population, even though it is twice the size of that of Dimona.

"For me, this is an example of the sweeping disregard of the Bedouin population in the Negev. There are many 'national' programs that are created as if the Bedouin residents were invisible, and did not exist in the area: roads, railroads, military bases, huge military industries, phosphate mines, and overhead power lines. Even if these are approved longstanding master plans, at the execution stage it’s inexcusable to ignore people in the field."

"Counting the number of apartments, not the people who will live in them" -- Sharon Band-Hevroni, urban planner and economist, partner at BeMida Urban Planning, Business Development and Community Strategy

"As challenges in housing increase, so does the growing sense that planning systems are disengaging from the principles of planning for human beings: quality, sustainable planning designed to serve a community for the long-term. No one builds a building or neighborhood for just a few years, but most of the emphasis is placed on the Excel spreadsheets, quantitative calculations, and technical elements driven by considerations like 'bigger', 'faster', and 'higher'. These spreadsheets place far less emphasis on quality of life for the people who will live out their entire lives there. The inhabitants of these towers are left on their own to deal with managing a complex structure over years, without assistance or regulation from the state.

"Public buildings continue to be insufficiently versatile and functional. They take up a lot of space but have low levels of use, and are closed for many hours of the day. Commercial space isn't planned out of a vision of market needs, or a professional understanding of its importance in community life, and the result is bad, dysfunctional planning, the kind that generates unnecessary conflicts from the start.

"Public space is generic, devoid of creativity or local identity, and it misses out on the possibility of being meaningful by creating spontaneous encounters and significant interpersonal relationships that build community resilience. Traffic and transportation systems planning is centered mostly around leaving and returning home to and from places of employment, without taking into account other destinations, and additional needs - of children, teenagers, elders, non-car owners - are not addressed."

"Kibbutzim and moshavim are destined to become millionaire mansion neighborhoods" -- Architect Michael Jacobson, Feitelson-Shilo-Jacobson Architects.

"As part of my work as a participant in drafting the comprehensive outline plans for regional councils in the Central Region, one issue we encounter is the narrow vision of the National Outline Plan [NOP 35 or Tama 35]. The program is so biased in favor of cities, it’s as if the planners forgot about the rural areas. While cities have almost no limits on their development, under this plan, growth of rural settlements has stalled. The freeze is particularly evident in the unreasonable limitation on the number of apartments for each moshav and kibbutz at 300-350 units. Only a few hundred families live on these huge tracts of land, so they’re destined to become neighborhoods of mansions for millionaires.

"The agriculture industry has changed; today every moshav or kibbutz has only five or six active farmers. Neither this program nor any other provides a solution for those large farmers who cultivate their neighbors’ properties as well as their own.

"In addition, the regional outline plan sets limits on the development of rural settlements, without flexibility or vision for future development. This is not about loving open, sparsely populated areas, because as soon as the VATMAL comes along, within seconds, entire agricultural areas are destroyed and give way to urban sprawl."

"City centers, the most interesting places, have been abandoned." -- Ella Alexandri, CEO of Merhav - Movement for Israeli Urbanism

"We’ve run away from city centers. The planning system and local governments also abandoned the city centers in favor of overly spread out, boring, inferior construction. Clearly, city centers are the interesting places where things happen, the true kernels of growth, the seeds of renewal. If I look at Haifa, where I live, it’s clear to me that the revival won’t start in the commuter neighborhoods on the Carmel, but in the old centers, Hadar HaCarmel in particular.

"These places have a physical infrastructure that’s neglected and weak but still works. We must make use the city’s existing strength, which always lies in the heart of the city. These places have developed organically, are diverse, and aren’t based on having a private car."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on September 26, 2021

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

The seafront at Rishon LeZion  - parking lots all the way  credit: Shutterstock
The seafront at Rishon LeZion - parking lots all the way credit: Shutterstock
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